Issue: 2020: Vol. 19, No. 2

Decoupling between the U.S. and China May be as Disruptive as COVID-19

Article Author(s)

Yawei Liu

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Yawei Liu is Director of The Carter Center’s China Program. Yawei Liu has been a member of numerous Carter Center missions to monitor Chinese village, township and county people’s congress deputy elections from 1997 to 2011. He has also observed elections in Nicaragua, Peru and Taiwan. He has written extensively on China’s political developments, grassroots democracy and US-China relations. Yawei edited three Chinese book series: Rural Election and Governance in Contemporary China ... 
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In an interview with Fox Business News on May 14, U.S. President Donald Trump said, “There are many things we could do (to China). We could cut off the whole relationship.” He went on to say, “Now, if you did, what would happen? You’d save $500 billion if you cut off the whole relationship.” When asked about Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump said he has “a very good relationship” but “right now I just don’t want to speak to him.” Since coming to office in 2017, President Trump has done more than all the presidents since Jimmy Carter combined to damage U.S.-China relations. Unpredictable as he has been, President Trump has never before publicly entertained the idea of cutting off the whole relationship with China. The president’s supporters often say that Mr. Trump should be taken seriously but not literally. But even if talk of severing the relationship is Trumpian hyperbole, there is no doubt that a growing consensus has emerged – not just in the White House – that a tougher line toward China must be taken. Therefore, it is instructive to examine what might happen if the largest economy in the world cuts itself off from the second largest economy. What would the world confront if China quits collaborating with other leading nations in responding to pandemics like COVID-19, climate change, and nuclear proliferation? The West could afford to isolate China for 30 years from 1949 to 1978 when it was militarily weak, ideologically xenophobic, and economically irrelevant. As powerful as China is now, cutting it off from the U.S. and pushing it out of the global community would be troubling if not dangerous. The question is what has driven the administration to publicly talk about taking this drastic measure?

Where the bilateral relationship is now?

The relationship between the U.S. and China was at a historic low due to trade, high tech, and other issues when COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 and early 2020. It might have been a great opportunity for Beijing and Washington to switch gears and find new ground to cooperate.

Unfortunately, leaders in both nations failed to seize the moment. The notorious “decouplers” close to the White House – represented by Peter Navarro, a trade adviser to Trump, and Michael Pillsbury, a China watcher favored by Trump – saw the outbreak as a golden opportunity to increase the pace of disconnecting with China. Other administration officials chimed in. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross declared it would create momentum for the U.S. manufacturing sector to bring jobs from China back to the U.S.  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a domestic and international lecture tour to castigate China for attacking American democracy, stealing American intellectual property, using debt to entrap developing countries, and applying coercive diplomacy to its neighbors. The State Department began to treat Chinese media outlets in the U.S. as hostile entities and later sharply reduced the number of their employees in the country.

When Wuhan locked down, the U.S. offered no official moral or material support. On the contrary, it sent a high-caliber delegation to Germany to lobby allies and others at the Munich Security Conference against using Huawei technologies or products.  The U.S. Navy continued to conduct freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea. The USS McCampbell (DDG 85), a guided-missile destroyer, passed through the Taiwan Strait on March 25, something an American ship has not done since the Cross-Strait crisis in 1996 before Taiwan’s first direct presidential election. A Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “China, the Real Sick Man of Asia” seemed to crystalize the American reaction to China’s suffering and touched a raw nerve in China’s national psyche. Even worse, on March 26 President Trump signed the TAIPEI Act into law, the third act passed by Congress since 2017 that was designed to change the status quo in the Cross-Strait relations.

China has responded tit for tat to the perceived American slight and humiliation. It lashed out at the U.S. for being one of the first nations to ban Chinese citizens from entering the country. It expelled several Wall Street Journal reporters after the aforementioned op-ed was published. It then sent other American reporters packing. It refused a proposed shipment of personal protective equipment organized by the USAID in early March when the COVID-19 situation came under control in Wuhan. The Chinese ambassador to the U.S. began to complain that the political virus was as destructive as the coronavirus. In mid-March, when the outbreak began to spread in the U.S. and the American death toll began rising, Zhao Lijian, China’s newly appointed Foreign Ministry spokesman, declared an information war on the U.S. via Twitter. He wondered whether the U.S. military brought the virus to Wuhan during the World Military Games in October 2019 and demanded that the U.S. identify its own patient zero.

In response to Zhao’s provocative tweets, U.S. leaders began to use either “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” when referring to COVID-19. Secretary Pompeo’s insistence on using the term made it impossible for the G-7 Summit to issue a communique after an online consultation. Bilateral insults escalated until President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping talked over the phone on March 26. A temporary truce was violated toward the end of April when President Trump decided to withhold payment to the World Health Organization (WHO) because of its alleged China-centric behavior. Soon after, the administration began to talk about holding China accountable for the disastrous spread of COVID-19 in America and elsewhere. U.S. intelligence agencies were ordered to seek evidence about whether the virus came out of a lab in Wuhan. Members of Congress accused China of concealing the outbreak and hoarding PPE. American allies have joined the chorus. Lawsuits against China were filed in the U.S. and ways to punish China became a daily discussion point during the White House coronavirus task force briefings. A GOP campaign strategy paper was leaked, revealing advice to all GOP candidates to blame China for America’s lack of effective response to COVID-19. More recently, Kevin McCarthy, Republican leader in the House of Representatives, formed a China task force with a mission to investigate China’s malign global activities. The Democrats in the House backed out of the task force because, in the words of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the GOP’s fanatic effort to tie China to the failure of the administration to contain the virus effectively was an “interesting diversion.” Pelosi said Democrats would not provide justification for such scapegoating.

Then, a second truce appeared to be on the horizon. On May 4, Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger told participants at a forum on U.S.-China relations held virtually at the University of Virginia that the U.S. would not seek punitive measures against China during the COVID-19 crisis. Interestingly his wife, Yen Pottinger, a virologist who used to work at the CDC on AIDS and TB, spoke at the same conference on the prospect of U.S.-China cooperation during the pandemic. Three days later, China’s top trade negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He, had a conference call with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Ligthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Both sides pledged to honor the first phase trade agreement hammered out earlier and emphasized the importance of U.S.-China cooperation during the pandemic. The positive turn in early May seemed to have collapsed by the middle of the month when China signaled that Beijing could scrap the trade deal due to America’s senseless pursuit of reparations from China for COVID-19 deaths and when Trump threatened to cut off all relations with China.

Forty-one years after the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China, one of the most consequential anchors for global peace and prosperity is now facing the prospect of a grand decoupling. If allowed to continue unchecked, the world will likely face a grave period of political uncertainty, economic disruption, and security vulnerability unseen in recent history. Although Chinese leaders have never openly challenged American supremacy and have always called for a win-win relationship with the U.S., Chinese media’s narrow focus on American failures in responding to the pandemic and sharp attacks on the American attempts to hold China accountable for the global spread of the coronavirus have presented a dastardly picture of the U.S. At the same time, ordinary Americans, who usually do not pay much attention to Chinese affairs, have been exposed to the vicious criticism of China. This mutual antagonism can only serve to drive the two nations further apart.

Could the U.S. and China still cooperate during the pandemic?

It is never too late for the two most consequential powers on earth to cooperate during the pandemic. In fact, the epic endeavor to contain the virus will face much more difficult prospects if the U.S. and China refuse to work together. Leaders in both countries during their phone calls have expressed their willingness to cooperate in fighting COVID-19. But what happens daily seems to indicate that mutual distrust is so deep that neither side is ready to enter into an effective partnership.

According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, from March 1 to May 5, China supplied the U.S. with 6.6 billion masks, 344 million surgical gloves, 44 million protective garments, 6.75 million goggles, and 7,500 ventilators. Yet, the U.S. keeps talking about reducing the American dependence on China for pharmaceutical products and PPE, and allege PPE made in China are shoddy in quality. American officials constantly accuse the Chinese government of concealing the outbreak, but no one has publicly acknowledged that, as the New York Times reported, Dr. George Gao, director of the Chinese CDC called Dr. Robert Redfield, his counterpart in the U.S. CDC, during the New Year break and alerted him to the outbreak in Wuhan. In fact, by late February, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, there were more than 30 such communications from China to the U.S.  But months into the crisis, it seems that no one in either capital is focusing on a crucial need: that the U.S. and China must work together during this pandemic to return to any semblance of normalcy. How could the U.S and China coordinate, cooperate and collaborate in containing the virus?

First, official communication could be ramped up. China was ahead of every country in dealing with this brutal and pernicious virus. It has a lot of experience to share with the U.S. in treatment, methodology, drug application, and reopening. Professional staff from U.S. CDC and Chinese CDC are believed to be holding regular meetings on the outbreak and containment. NGOs, university entities, and research institutions in both countries have been conducting regular, small-scale online information sharing sessions. But there is no official organization of any of these activities. During the Obama Administration, there were close to 100 mechanisms of dialogue between agencies of the two governments. At this critical time when bilateral cooperation is most needed, communication at the top level of the country and central government agencies is reduced to a couple of phone calls.  There is almost zero inter-governmental consultation between the U.S. and China. This is a shame and should be corrected.

Second, considering where African, Latin American, and other developing regions are in their fight against COVID-19, it is crucial for the U.S. and China to work together to provide leadership, expertise, and assistance. No country will be safe if any other country has failed to contain the virus. As Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed noted in an op-ed in the Financial Times on March 25, “Momentary victory by a rich country in controlling the virus at a national level, coupled with travel bans and border closures, may give a semblance of accomplishment. But we all know this is a stopgap. Only global victory can bring this pandemic to an end.” No global victory could be declared if the U.S. and China refuse to enter into a partnership to work with developing countries to stop the virus. The two countries cooperated closely in stopping Ebola in West Africa in 2014-2016 and they need to do this again. In Africa exiting models for coordinating assistance around disease prevention show promise as models for U.S.-China coordination around COVID-19.  U.S. PEPFAR (President Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) was instrumental in building African health capacity and infrastructure to fight against HIV/AIDS and other diseases, while Chinese medical teams have provided medical assistance and support in almost all African nations. The ongoing efforts of the African CDC—through support by the U.S, China, and other countries—has allowed member states to continue preparing for this new threat. Closer U.S.-China cooperation in Africa could turn the possible weakest link in the global defense against COVID-19 into a much stronger line of containment.

Third, both countries should and must work together in testing, producing, and eventually distributing a coronavirus vaccine. The virus will stop mankind from working and living normally absent an effective vaccine that is available to everyone in the world. The U.S., China, and other developed countries have engaged in a race to produce a viable vaccine, but as of now, there is no active cooperation between China and the West. China must be criticized for not providing a live virus sample to the U.S in the early stages of the outbreak, but blaming China for trying to steal Western secrets related to the vaccine without any hard evidence will simply prevent indispensable multilateral cooperation. Vaccines are not computer chips, and all involved need to pool their knowledge and share information. The U.S and China must take the lead in coordinating this scientific race against the constantly mutating virus.

Where will the Sino-American relationship be after the pandemic?

U.S.-China decoupling is not a matter of if but a question of how serious it is and where it is happening. According to the U.S.-China Investment Report released by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and the Rhodium group on May 9, Chinese FDI to the U.S. in 2019 was almost zero. An order from U.S. Department of Commerce on May 15 bars any company in the world that uses American machinery and software from supplying Huawei. Four U.S. senators wrote to President Trump and asked him to suspend a program that enables international students to stay in the U.S. for up to two years after graduation. The largest body of international students in the U.S. comes from China. The U.S. has stipulated that visas for Chinese media workers will be restricted to 90 days. Measures aimed at decoupling are taken daily by the Trump Administration.

This may be why Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian expressed no surprise and showed no sign of nervousness when asked to comment on President Trump’s May14 declaration that he is considering cutting off the relationship with China. Zhao’s response was: “A steady and growing China-U.S. relationship serves the fundamental interests of the two peoples and is conducive to world peace and stability. At present, China and the U.S. should strengthen cooperation to prevail over the pandemic at an early date, and focus on saving lives, and resuming economic development and production. This, of course, calls for the U.S. and China working together towards the same goal.”

Compared to what official Chinese media outlets have heaped on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and adviser Matthew Pottinger, this response is shockingly tame but also utterly terrifying. The China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security, recently issued a report indicating that the U.S.-China relationship is at its lowest point since 1989 and that armed confrontation is not inconceivable. Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor in chief of the Global Times, has called the Chinese government to expand its nuclear arsenal arguing, “We are facing an increasingly irrational U.S., which only believes in strength.” Wang Haiyun, a retired major general, demanded the Chinese government dig out and punish “those traitors who have been bought out by the United States and do its bidding.” Others argue there is no need to react to the lunacy of the American administration. China simply needs to prepare for the worst. According to this line of thinking, the U.S. is deciding to decouple when it has the least in its toolbox. Time will be on China’s side. Cui Tiankai, the longest serving Chinese ambassador to the U.S., recently told a reporter that he does not care if the bilateral relationship does not return to where it was before the pandemic. He only cares about looking forward to a better and brighter framework of U.S.-China interaction. One Peking University professor told this author, “Not too long from now, there will be a raging debate in the U.S. on who has lost China, similar to the same debate that was launched in 1949.”

American aggressiveness and recklessness in decoupling and China’s response, characterized by a sense of resignation, seemingly well-planned preparedness and determination at playing the long game, all point to a bleaker prospect for the bilateral relationship. Businesses, academic and research institutions, NGOs, and ordinary people on both sides of the ocean should fasten their seat belts and be ready for a bumpy ride in the coming months, if not years. The bilateral breakup may be as disruptive as COVID-19.

How will U.S.-China rivalry change the landscape of global well-being?

Neither China nor the U.S. has fared well in its response to the pandemic. China’s initial effort to stifle the doctors and conceal the outbreak has proven costly and counterproductive. It is wrong and misleading to assume China will replace the U.S. and become dominant in world affairs. The U.S., after being alerted by China at least three weeks before the virus invaded the homeland, was ill-prepared and has been ineffective in containment, even months after declaring a national emergency. The mediocre, if not incompetent, performance of the U.S. government has disappointed and will continue to disillusion people from all over the world – people who used to believe in America’s supreme national will to respond to crises big and small, enviable resources, and dominating advances in biomedical research. As a result, the debate on which system of governance is more effective in alleviating national suffering and protecting people’s lives will continue inside and outside the two countries. But whatever edge China has gained in effectively containing the virus in a relatively short period of time has been compromised by its refusal to acknowledge initial deficiencies and to allow international experts to investigate the origins of the virus in Wuhan.

The ramifications for the U.S. and China are serious. Countries around the world will be asking two essential questions: First, can China be trusted, given how it mishandled the outbreak initially?  Second, can the U.S. be relied upon, considering how it has bungled the fight to contain the virus? China’s reluctance to make all information related to the virus available to the world and its own people makes it difficult for other countries to have confidence in it. The lackluster American response and its unilateralism in making decisions that will impact the world make other countries doubt its commitment to international responsibility in addressing future challenges. These uncertainties could lead to an era of shaky alliances and new partnerships. It is possible that the EU or another existing or newly created power bloc could seize global leadership.

The international system will face unprecedented challenges as long as the U.S. and China engage in zero-sum rivalry. The U.S. and other Western countries are determined to investigate whether WHO was involved in any “wrongdoing” in alerting the world about the outbreak in China in a timely and unbiased manner. If hard evidence emerges that points to China exercising undue influence on WHO for self-serving purposes, one potential consequence could be an exodus of the U.S. and its followers from the organization. Would a parallel but competitive WHO be created? Would WHO’s parent organization, the U.N., face the same challenge? Secretary Pompeo recently said that the U.S. may never return to the WHO. The U.S. has already withdrawn from UNESCO and the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

The possibility of China setting up a new international order bent on serving its own interests is remote. It will either leave the international system or stay put and call for reforms. The unity of the U.S.-led international system, if it still exists after the pandemic, may lead to two possible outcomes. First, as a new kid on the block, China could become a more mature and responsible stakeholder in the international community. But if China is again infected by the victimization mentality, it could decide to shut down its long-running reform and opening up. The second outcome, which is not impossible, would be bad for China, for the U.S., and for the world.  It would make the international system more vulnerable and responses to global challenges chaotic, sporadic, and ineffectual.

In conclusion, the post-pandemic world likely will be an era of deep uncertainty characterized by an escalating rivalry between the U.S. and China. A Sino-U.S. economic and financial disconnection could lead to another arms race and a disastrous global economic downturn.  Challenges to the international order and institutions would be more severe as both Beijing and Washington ramp up pressure.  Countries, particularly developing ones, would be forced to choose sides, leading to possible realignment of the international community unseen since the end of the Cold War. Finally, as U.S. and China both attempt to restore reputations tainted by their responses to the pandemic, numerous new power centers could emerge to either stabilize the situation and restore sanity to the management of international affairs or create even more uncertainty and disruption.